The apartments of Her Serene Highness the Princess Scheza were more frightening to Aliya than the new hell the clerics of the Divided God preached in the streets. She stood on the threshold of the Princess's solar, surveying the devastation within. Furniture overturned, curtains and tapestries torn and scorched, still-smoking coals scattered from the marble grate across the tiles. Obscenities against the Divided God and the Son of Heaven and the people of Carnassa were scratched on every inch of every wall in charcoal, in ink and in what looked horribly like dried blood. A pool of vomit despoiled the pristine beauty of the balcony, enclosed in golden filigree screens upon which had been scrawled yet more flagrant blasphemies. Most terrifying of all, though, was the Princess seated cross-legged in a chalked circle in the center of the room. She wore a slave's black robe, even more threadbare and dirty than Aliya's, and her dark hair was shorn whore-short. Her golden eyes were closed, her heart-shaped face tranquil. She looked like a statue carved from flesh, like the beautiful caryatids the alchemists had sold in the plaza carnea before the war.
Aliya stood on the threshold for better than a minute, the rest of the Princess's apartments sparkling clean at her back, before she dared to set foot in the solar. At once the Princess Scheza's golden eyes snapped open. Aliya's breath caught in her throat as the eyes, so like His Holiness's, probed her. The Princess blinked, fixed her gaze dead ahead on nothing and closed her eyes again. Aliya exhaled. Her knees trembled. Slowly, carefully she began to undo the maelstrom of destruction Scheza had wrought upon her solar. She gathered up books, their spines bent and pages ripped, and stacked them by the door. She righted the furniture, rolled the carpets and soiled clothes for dousing in the vats of the fullery and scrubbed the floors with hot water, lye and relentless determination. All the while the Princess did not so much as move. Aliya's skin prickled whenever she looked at the other girl. How could she be so hateful toward her divine father?
The scrubbing of the walls took hours. Aliya attacked the slanderous scrawlings with rags, with brushes, with a straight razor's blade. At last, disheveled and irritated, she flung the razor aside with a cry of anger. It bounced across the tiles, scattering flecks of paint.
“I've transmuted it. The coal dust, the ink, the blood. It's all part of the walls, now. You might get the paint off if you have a week to spare. I couldn't work out a solution to fuse it properly.”
Aliya turned, wide-eyed, to the Princess. Scheza stood within her circle, arms folded and expression remote. She was naked beneath her chalk-dusted black robe. The linen clung to her round breasts. Her eyes had turned a deep, poisonous violet. “You bathe the Maturi. My father's favorite, don't you?” The air grew chill. Frost crackled like fire across the windowpanes.
Aliya nodded, her teeth chattering. Her fingers fumbled numbly at the wall as she pressed herself against it, desperate to escape Scheza's penetrating stare. She would rather have been anywhere in the world, even bathing the arrogant Maturi concubine or back in the horror of the Second Revolution when the Son of Heaven had come to power. Smoke and blood. Her parents hanged for-
Scheza stepped out of her circle. In an instant the air in the room seemed to warm. The Princess's eyes resumed their normal shade of gold. Without comment she went to the books stacked by the door, selected a slim volume bound in blued leather and placed it in Aliya's hands. “Give this to her,” she said. She thrust her face close to Aliya's. “And don't tell my father, or anyone else, unless he, my brother or I directly order it. Given that my brother is on campaign and my father has never spoken to a servant, I feel that should be enough to ensure it gets to her. Don't you think?”
Aliya stared into Scheza's golden eyes, clutching the slim volume against the front of her stained and threadbare robe. “Yes, Princess,” she heard herself say. The words fell from her lips like lead weights.
Scheza stepped back, sizing Aliya up with a critical look. “You're frightened of me.”
Aliya looked down at her feet, cheeks burning. “Please, Princess,” she whispered, her hands tightening on the slim book. “I have so much work to do, and Mistress Chamyde will be angry if I do not finish cleaning.”
“That old relic?” Scheza turned her back on Aliya. She went to a window and put her palm flat against the glass. Her radiant eyes seemed to drink in the city. “I'll see to it you're not punished. Now, run along and deliver that like a good little slave. I have no further use for you here.”
Aliya slid along the wall, her eyes on Scheza. As she neared the door she twisted around and ran, clutching the book hard against her chest. The rest of the Princess's dusty, unused apartments flashed past as she raced for the servants' halls that honeycombed the walls of the palace. She slipped behind a tapestry hanging between two brooding statues of old, dead philosophers, yanked open an ancient pine door and darted into the comforting darkness of her world. She closed the door and breathed the moist, pine-scented air with her back against the cool stone wall of the long, narrow stair. She closed her eyes and shivered. How could something sired by the Son of Heaven be so foul?
Hurried footsteps on the steps brought Aliya's thoughts back firmly to the present. Someone else was coming up the stairs, a shuttered alchemical lamp heralding their approach. Aliya squinted against the sudden brilliance. It was Moana, another of the palace slaves. She paused on a lower stare and looked up through the gloom. “Aliya?” said the round-faced girl “You look like you've seen a demon. Are you alright?”
Aliya swallowed. “It's nothing,” she said. “I was just cleaning the...the Princess's chambers and I thought I saw something. Silly of me. I don't know where my head is.”
Moana shuddered, glancing sidelong at the door through which Aliya had entered the stair. “They should make the dead clean those rooms,” she said. “They're always cold, no matter how hot it is, and she's always sitting there on the floor like some sort of monk.” The other slave climbed a few more steps and lowered her voice to a conspiratorial whisper. “She isn't right in the head, I've heard.”
Aliya straightened her shoulders. She felt perversely emboldened by the other girl's obvious fear. “Well, no matter,” she said. “She wasn't very frightening. I'll see you at dinner?”
“If I finish with Massoud agha's chambers before midnight,” groaned Moana. “For a vizier, he makes an awful mess.”
After a handful of stale, meaningless pleasantries they parted ways. Aliya pushed back her cowl, took a deep breath and started down the narrow stair. The concubine's apartments were high in the palace's southernmost minaret and it took the best part of an hour to navigate the maze of service corridors that riddled the main keep and its outbuildings. The kitchens passed in a blur of shouting cooks and sweating slaves bent over coal grates or engaged in dicing huge mounds of leeks and onions. Next came one of the palace's countless belfries, an echoing space hung with thick ropes and intricate scaffolds of steel and oak supporting great-tongued bronze bells that rang three times a day. Dry wind blew through the dusty space, stirring the robes of the blind dervishes who worked the bellpulls in exchange for their suppers. Another stair, this one's entrance hidden behind the ponderous bust of a long-dead Thulhun Emperor, took Aliya to a tiny antechamber built on the ninth level of the concubine's tower. Aliya stepped out of the hidden servants' door and let its concealing tapestry fall back into place. She pressed her ear to the apartment door. To interrupt a Holy Union between the Son of Heaven and his chosen vessel would mean blinding or death. She heard nothing, though, and so she eased the door open and went in.
The concubine was sitting in her usual spot, languorously beautiful in her blue silk robe with her long, sleek black hair pinned up at the back of her head. A glass of wine, half-drunk, dangled from her hand. Her pale eyes flicked to Aliya as she emerged from behind the tapestry in the room's corner. Aliya bowed. “Mistress.”
The concubine said something in loose, slurred Maturi, then threw back her head and laughed. Sapphires sparkled around her elegant white neck. Wine spilled from her glass in brilliant drops of carnelian to soak into the carpet. Aliya knelt and, retrieving the book from her sleeve, placed it before her on the carpet. At once the concubine's laughter ceased. A look of predatory hunger flickered across her face. She half-fell from her seat, rushed across the room and snatched the book up from the carpet. Her wineglass rolled across the woven calligraphies, spilling bloody nectar. Tears ran down the Maturi woman's cheeks. She pressed her lips to the book's leather binding as though it were her own child.
Aliya left while the concubine rocked back and forth, sobbing. When, nearly an hour later, she finally reached her cramped cell below the kitchens her feet were sore and a knot of bright pain had twisted itself into being behind her left eye. She sat down heavily on the edge of her straw-stuffed mattress and pulled off her slippers, wincing as the blisters on her feet made themselves known.
She slept fitfully, slipping in and out of dreams in which stone colossi strode through endless forests, their great feet crushing trees and men alike. Moss-bearded, ancient and eroding the giants lumbered without purpose. Some laid down and did not rise. Others sat staring at the stars with glass eyes socketed in rotten stone. When morning finally came she awoke to see Scheza seated cross-legged at the end of her bed. Violet eyes stared at her from the shadows. Aliya's breath caught in her throat. She lay frozen, fingers digging into the mattress ticking. “Please,” she said quietly. “Are you going to kill me?”
Violet spread like spilled blood through the sclera of Scheza's eyes. “Tell me, darling," she said. "Would you like to be my handmaiden?"